Taking Sides: Was Disease the Key Factor in the Depopulation of Native Americans in the Early Americas

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Was Disease the Key Factor in the Depopulation of Native Americans in the Americas? Did Europeans purposefully infect the Native Americans? That question will never be answered. Whether intentional or accidental, the truth remains that disease was indeed brought to the early Native American culture due to European expansion. The true question is in Taking Sides, issue 2, Was Disease the Key Factor in the Depopulation of Native Americans in the Americas?

In this particular issue two sides are represented; yes by Collin G. Calloway, and no by David S. Jones. Let’s take a look at Calloway’s perspective towards the issue. The most important cause of Native American depopulation, during European contact, was epidemic disease. The sixteenth through nineteenth centuries saw many different diseases strike Native American populations with considerable frequency.

Many of the diseases, such as syphilis, smallpox, measles, mumps, and bubonic plague, were of European origin; and Native Americans exhibited little immunity because they had no previous exposure to those diseases. While they did experience other forms of illnesses like malnutrition, anemia, respiratory infections, and parasitic intestinal infections prior to the Europeans; this was brand new to them and it caused greater mortality than would have occurred, if these diseases been common to the Americas.

Collin Calloway goes on in detail, the documented evidence of how drastic disease was on their people. “Governor Diego de Rebolledo reported in 1657 that […] Indians were few because they have been whipped out with the sickness of the plague[…] According to one scholar […] Apalachee Indians of Northern Florida numbered 25,000-30,000 in the early seventeenth century; by the end of the century, less than 8,000 survived” (26). This is approximately a 75% wipeout due to strictly disease and is not the only example.

In 1539 New Mexico’s population was estimated at 130,000 and 110 Pueblos, and by 1706 there were only 6,440 and 18 Pueblos: during the early 1600’s the coast of Massachusetts flourished with over 3,000 Natives, and by 1763 there were only 348 people. The same circumstances occurred across the continent: in Cuba, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Guatamala; up to Virginia, South Carolina, New England coast, Connecticut, Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, Great Lakes, Eastern New York, and Canada; to the West side of California, and Texas; nvolving the Iroquis, Omahas, Hurons, Cherokees, Crees, Mohawks, and Senecas. Calloway acknowledges that the diseases were able to spread so rapidly due to the Natives’ immune system. Because Native Americans had only witnessed malnutrition, parasites, and respiratory infections; they were unprepared for the epidemic destined in their future. Their practices consisted of herbal remedies, sweat boxes, and praise dances; which were ineffective towards the viruses that spread upon them.

Due to their ignorance, they used these same practices as treatment for viruses; turning them from an illness to death. Until they became desperate, Indians strictly opposed the “white-man’s” medicine: by the time they accepted their remedies, it was too late. “[In 1796,] many Indian people overcame their suspicion of the white man’s medicine to accept he protection it could offer against the white man’s diseases. Nevertheless, the protection was too little and too late to stop demographic disaster” (Calloway 30).

Unfortunately, Indians were left to fend for themselves in this issue; for there were no hospitals in America until 1811, after almost their entire ethnicity was demolished. The Native Americans had no help, no knowledge, and no escape. The Indian population once stood somewhere between five and ten million in 1492, but by the 1800s, that figure dropped to around 600,000. In turn the European colonial population doubled every twenty-five years in America. What does that mean- that the colonies flourished, because of their immunities, while Natives essentially disintegrated.

Indians were not the only race experiencing death from disease either; “many scholars describe them not as epidemics but as pandemics” (26), because the same thing occurred virtually everywhere. From David Jones’ point of view, it is important to note that these epidemics were just some of the causes of population decline during European contact. Poverty, environmental stress, massacres, dislocation, malnutrition, and destruction of traditional subsistence patterns also changed the composition of many Native American groups.

Eventually, these changes caused substantial depopulation and cultural change. Jones agrees that disease carried a decisive role; however, he argues that it is not the key factor in their depopulation. “Many factors contributed to American Indian susceptibility to Old World diseases, including lack of childhood exposure, malnutrition, and the social chaos generated by European colonization” (Jones 34). David Jones realizes their immune systems were weak, and he presents the question why: is it possibly because they were malnourished, exhausted, and stressed out due to Europeans?

He speaks in detail about Indians being defenseless to pathogens, through homogeneity, and how their fates depended on their entire environment. Combined with their vulnerability, “it could well be [assessed] that the epidemics among American Indians, despite their unusual severity, were caused by the same forces of poverty, social stress, and environmental vulnerability that cause epidemics in all other times and places” (34). This is a strong point revealing that Native American depopulation was in fact a “team effort”.

Jones also discusses the role of genetics and malnutrition towards their rapid depopulation. American Indians societies lacked an adaptive immunity due to non-exposure: their bodies had no defensive mechanism for the virus given to them; therefore, no way to fight. Their bodies were also simply not strong enough to defend and malnourishment is an obvious explanation. It increases risk for infection. “Malnutrition provides the most obvious, and prevalent, demonstration of the links between social conditions, environmental conditions, and disease” (35), for it impairs the bodies strength.

For example, “some vitamin deficiencies cause skin breakdown, eroding the first barrier of defense against infection [,and] protein deficiencies impair both cellular and hormonal responses (35). Ones’ body needs nutrition to survive period, let alone when it is being attacked. Another point is that Indians faced different environmental factors through dislocation. Europeans never respected the Indian culture; so once they set foot on the American soil, they deemed it to be theirs’.

The American Indian culture fought against this, but they were ultimately forced to different climates of the nation; for if a tribe were to contest or battle for war, they were ruthlessly massacred. Native Americans were forced to find, and rebuild communities, food, shelter, and ways of life. Not only did they have to move, but because of European needs for wood, the weather changed for their worse: “deforestation led to wider temperature swings and more severe flooding” (36). This instance is traumatic enough. Combined with disease, it is deadly.

Socially, Native Americans were never able to “bounce back” once they were hit with disease. It spread so quickly that all elders died off, fathers died off, and young 14 year old men were appointed to lead tribes with little experience and knowledge. Imagine how damaging this is towards the tribes’ future survival rate. “Many American Indian groups declined [in the 95 percentile,] for a century and then began to recover”. Jones also compares Indian mortality rates to those of the first colonial city, Jamestown. He states that because of the colonists malnutrition and absence diseases, more died than survived. Karen Kupperman has documented the synergy of malnutrition deficiency diseases, and despair at Jamestown, where 80 percent of the colonists died between 1607 and 1625” (38). However, this is all due to their relocation to a rural “New World”. Yes, Native Americans were greatly malnourished. They lacked many essential vitamins and practices needed to ward off illnesses and disease. Their immune systems were poor, because they were only exposed to one another throughout their existence; and it is possible that they may not have had the genetics to fight disease due to natural selection.

But didn’t they survive and flourish before European settlement and infection? When finally exposed to deadly diseases; malnutrition, environmental factors, social stress and poverty finally became a factor. Without disease, these were not issues, other than social stress caused by colonial expansion. Native Americans faced depopulation while dealing with Europeans in general, however; disease was a key, destructive factor. Numbers do not lie, and the statistics Collin Calloway presented were outstanding. He didn’t have to say much because the numbers spoke for him.

In comparison to David Jones, Jones was forced to agree “[…] that infectious diseases, introduced by Europeans and Africans, played a decisive role” (33). His only dispute was that there were contributing factors, which is completely factual. The only fallacy was that those contributing factors did not damage the American Indian population until combined with disease: that is why disease was the key factor in the depopulation of Native Americans. In closing, Native Americans suffered undoubtedly for centuries in direct correlation with European expansion in the Americas.

In Taking Sides, issue two, the debate stood on whether the disease by Europeans was a key factor or not. Collin G. Calloway presented statistics explaining that yes, disease destroyed the American Indians; while David S. Jones argued that the other factors were key in their depopulation. Both sides offered interesting and factual points of view; however, Calloway gained an advantage through statistics and logical reasoning. Now the question still stands: did Europeans spread disease on purpose?

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